Updated: Dec 20, 2022
As we get closer to winter the duration of sunlight becomes shorter and the night takes over as the dominant time of day. Night is very important in the cycles and processes of nature and there is still a lot to notice during this time. On a clear night, the moon and stars are visible to orient and guide you just as the sun can during the day. Many predators use the cover of nightfall to mask their hunting behaviors. The darkness of night is also important for the circadian rhythms of our bodies. So what’s going on at night? Let's get into it!
The symbols of nighttime include the moon and the stars, which are the celestial bodies that are suspended above us in the sky. The patterns created by the moon and the stars can guide us across the night landscape. In the northern hemisphere, two constellations can be used to find the north star, the big dipper and Cassiopeia. For the big dipper, take the distance from the two stars at the end of the pot and move 5 times that distance in the direction that those stars are angled at. Then you should find the north star. Cassiopeia is shaped like a W. If you take the distance between the two stars on the tips of the W, and then rotate that line on a 90 degree angle onto the left star, and move twice the distance in that direction, you’ll find the north star.
The moon can also be your guide as well. In the northern hemisphere, if you take the tips of the crescent moon, draw a straight line between those two points and follow that line all the way down to the horizon, that will lead you towards south. Because of the way the moon moves throughout the night, this will be true no matter its position.
Above Photo by @lck_wildlife
Another important part of nature at night are the night time predators hunting for food. One of these classic nighttime hunters is the Great Horned Owl. These owls can see well at night because of their specially adapted eyes that are very large and open very wide to allow as much light as possible to enter it. In addition to this, they have lots of extra rod cells in their eyes compared to humans. These are the cells most specialized for night vision. To make their eyes even more efficient, they also have mirror cells behind their rods called tapetum lucidum, which catch light that has passed the rods and sends it back up for a second chance at being seen. This is what causes their eyes to glow in the night, similar to cats. Owl eyes are so large that they cannot move them within their sockets, which is where their impressive head turning adaptation comes in handy, allowing them to turn their head up to 270 degrees, which is about ¾ of the way around.
Nighttime is important for our bodies as well. Deep within our brains, the pineal gland responds to the darkness of night by creating the hormone melatonin. This may sound familiar to you because this is the hormone that is responsible for helping us to fall asleep. It's why we aren’t supposed to be on our phones before bedtime. Melatonin is anti-inflammatory and also helps prevent breast and prostate cancer. The pineal gland needs total darkness to create melatonin, so this is why it is harder to sleep on full moon nights or when lights are on.
Although many people don’t like the longer nights, this time of year provides nature with the ability to rest and relax after a long year of growth and production. The darkness of night reveals the beauty of the night sky, provides cover for predators to hunt, and initiates the production of the sleep hormone that allows us to rest and repair after the day is done. With these longer nights, take time to relax, look out at the stars, and listen for the calls of the owls.